Snuggled under the covers of her bed in the pre-dawn hours of that late October morning, Annie awoke to the sound of her daddy’s cry. The painful yell and loud thud of his feet as they hit the floor echoed through the long, narrow trailer. Her heart hammered. Filled with terror, she heard the unmistakable fear in her father’s words as he bellowed, “I feel like my head’s going to explode!”
Annie’s head jerked toward the shared room next to hers where her two brothers bound out of their bunk beds, stumbling over each other to get out the door. They hustled down the hallway. She followed close on their heels.The family now gathered in her parents’ bedroom, fear clawed at her as she watched her daddy press both hands to his temples. She felt the blood drain from her face when soft whimpers escaped his throat. Her eyes darted from Daddy to Mommy’s tear-stained face then flitted over the terrified expressions of the boys; fear hung heavy in the room. The furthest thing from anyone’s mind was that this was the morning of Annie’s ninth birthday.
* * *Her three-year-old daughter’s face lit up at the sound of the key in the lock. Annie watched Amanda run into her daddy’s arms, noticed smiles on both their faces, watched him lift the toddler into the air and press her little face to his. Heart warmed at the special bond between a father and daughter, Annie smiled.
Two years passed. Annie watched Amanda loop her arm through her daddy’s and smile up at him as if he were the love of her life. Annie’s eyes misted.
Three years later, eight-year-old Amanda enfolded her arms around her daddy’s waist, stepped on his shoes, and swayed as he danced her around the room. A distant memory stirred in Annie. Sadness enveloped her, and her eyes brimmed.Alone that evening she yanked a notepad out of the desk drawer, face contorted with a rage that masked deep, deep hurt. Annie put pen to paper, hand energized as angry questions flowed. It didn’t matter that the questions were to a father who’d passed away five years ago, twenty years after the five the doctor predicted. What mattered was thirty years of bottled emotions spewed forth – emotions so raw that the angry words almost ripped through the page as she asked:
After you got well, why didn’t you dance with me and twirl me around the room to the records on our stereo the way you used to? Was I somehow to blame; did I cause your illness? Did I do something wrong to make you not want to be close to me anymore? Why did you keep a physical and emotional arm’s length from me during and after your illness? Did you know that your indifference made me feel unimportant, inadequate – invisible? Did you care?
Questions asked, Annie’s writing slowed as the anger and frustration ebbed. Her brow furrowed as memories surfaced, memories of how distant her father was after he came home from his long hospital stay. Memories of how anxious he became as each October rolled around. “Why?” Annie asked into the empty room.
As if she’d finally asked the right question, the answer came to her. His illness struck on her birthday, making her a constant reminder to her father of his imminent mortality. And each time her birthday rolled around, it meant he was one year closer to dying.
Her head spun at the revelation. Hot tears stung her eyes. She stared at the blurred paper as the insight gave her compassion for the man she’d grown to resent over the years. For the first time, she saw things from her father’s perspective. Annie thought about what must have gone through his mind when he’d heard the doctor’s words: did he wonder if he’d recuperate; wonder how his family would survive if he didn’t; wonder if he’d somehow let his family down?
She grabbed a tissue and dried her eyes, washed with a sense of understanding. At long last, the heart that was broken so long ago felt at peace. Her childish fear that she was to blame for her father’s illness and the misery her family endured afterward, she knew, would no longer haunt her. Instinctively, she now understood her Daddy never meant his aloofness to hurt any of them; he’d simply been afraid – afraid to leave his family alone, afraid to die. Detachment, both in the form of emotional distance and in alcohol, made it easier for him to face the inevitable.
Annie blew her nose as she pictured his face, smiling, loving – the way it looked before that fateful morning. She remembered the music from that old stereo and how she use to put her arms around his waist, step on his shoes, and sway as he danced her around the room. She remembered whispering, “I love you, Daddy” and his smiled response, “I love you, too, sweetheart.”She wished things hadn’t changed.
April Winters hopes to help people forget their troubles through her stories, even if it’s only for a little while. Her other works can be read at The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Linguistic Erosion, The Short Humour Site, The Story Shack, and here at Short-Story.Me.
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